Feeds

Schmidt still scanning the skies 50 years after defining the quasar

El Reg talks with legendary astronomer about gamma rays, GPS, and Hitler

Application security programs and practises

A shift in time

Schmidt spent long nights at Southern California's Palomar Observatory zipped into an electrically-heated flight suit against the killing cold, studying radio emissions in space. He soon grew intrigued by the huge sources of energy he saw there.

quasar galaxy

NASA's estimation of what a quasar could look like

Fellow astronomer Tom Matthews had begun to measure the redshift of these radio sources, and was getting results that suggested that they weren't as close as had been thought, but instead light-years further away. But the problem was that under to the prevailing view of the universe as being in a steady state, expanding constantly but with an even mix of matter inside, this wasn't possible.

Quasars exist only far back in cosmological time and aren't evenly distributed, as they would have been under the steady state theory of the universe that was then championed by such prominent figures as Sir Fred Hoyle. Quasars are a much better fit in the Big Bang theory of the universe, where certain types of objects form at specific times in the universe's growth cycle.

"Some prominent astronomers formed the opposition and would not believe what was going on," he explained. "But I liked Fred very much, we were certainly good friends. He was fantastically original and intelligent and extraordinarily creative."

Guiding lights

All this might sound very esoteric but there are plenty of practical applications to Schmidt's quasar discovery – not least the possibility of GPS here on Earth.

Because quasars are so far away, they are incredibly stable in their positioning, and as some of the brightest objects in the sky they are easily recognizable. In 1995, NASA completed its first International Celestial Reference Frame (ICRF) map of 600 quasars, now has over 3,000 logged in, and the map is the fundamental reference system for astronomy positioning.

quasar map

The precise mapping of quasars has applications on Earth and beyond

The position of these quasars is used to guide GPS satellites as they encircle the Earth from precise points to coordinate data. Thanks to the work of Schmidt, quasars are their guide-points, and their emissions could conceivably be used as navigational markers for space travel as well.

Quasars are, however, a dying breed. They appear to be a feature of the early life of the universe when there was plenty of fuel for the black holes thought to drive them. After 30 years of study, Schmidt is devoting the latter part of his career to the study of gamma ray bursts, mysterious bursts of energy from back at the beginnings of the universe.

Gamma ray bursts were first detected in the 1960s by US military Vela satellites, which were lofted to keep an eye on the Russians and make sure they weren't breaking the nuclear weapons test ban. They detected the gamma radiation from a distant point in the universe, and it's now thought that these bursts are generated by supernovae or the merging of stars.

At 84 Schmidt is still going strong, although he said that he appreciates the use of CCDs in the field, since it means no more long nights sitting in damp fields or on frigid mountain-tops. Eventually he says he'll be forced to retire from Caltech, but that won't stop his sky-gazing.

"Astronomers are among those who you never know when they are retired or not because we keep at it," he said. "All astronomers love the work they are doing – they are dedicated, and perhaps even obsessed." ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
Just TWO climate committee MPs contradict IPCC: The two with SCIENCE degrees
'Greenhouse effect is real, but as for the rest of it ...'
BEST BATTERY EVER: All lithium, all the time, plus a dash of carbon nano-stuff
We have found the Holy Grail (of batteries) - boffins
Asteroid's DINO KILLING SPREE just bad luck – boffins
Sauricide WASN'T inevitable, reckon scientists
Flamewars in SPAAACE: cooler fires hint at energy efficiency
Experiment aboard ISS shows we should all chill out for cleaner engines
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
Famous 'Dish' radio telescope to be emptied in budget crisis: CSIRO
Radio astronomy suffering to protect Square Kilometre Array
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.